Barça continued the triumphant march towards a 22nd league title this evening with a hard-earned 1-3 victory at Valladolid. With Jordi Roura in charge of the team while Tito Vilanova recovers from surgery, Barça put in a serious performance with Xavi Hernandez breaking the deadlock just before half time. Leo Messi added a second after an hour with his 91st goal of 2012 but a goal from Javi Guerra near the end left a nervous finish before substitute Cristian Tello wrapped things up for Barça in injury time.
Jordi Roura made three changes to last week’s team. Andrés Iniesta was not considered to be completely at 100% and started on the bench with Thiago coming into midfield, while Dani Alves returned at right back due to Adriano’s muscular problems. In central defence Mascherano returned to partner Piqué which left Puyol on the bench. There was still no place in the starting XI for David Villa as Alexis continued on the left. Both sets of players wore messages of support to Vilanova with the Barça players bearing the message “Seny, Pit i Collons” (Seny is a difficult word to translate but it’s like level-headedness or common sense; Pit means chest in English but is used in the sense of heart, and Collons is the popular Catalan slang for testicles. All together the basic meaning is “use your head and be brave”)
Valladolid came out at a terrific pace, pressing Barça up the pitch and there was an early scare when Mascherano trod on the ball but our defence played its way out of trouble. Against the high pressing game Barça need to play a fast passing game and today the players were tuned in to the task with Busquets giving a dominating performance in midfield. In the 5th minute he robbed the ball in Valladolid’s half, sending the ball forward to Xavi who found Messi who sent the ball out right for Pedro but when the low cross came in Alexis couldn’t quite get on the end of it.
The first shot of the game came from a free kick after Marc Valiente pulled Messi back, but Valladolid keeper Dani Hernandez read Messi’s intentions and made a comfortable safe. There was little threat to Victor Valdés’s goal but in the 13th minute Alberto Bueno sent over a looping cross from near the left corner flag and the big striker Manucho rose at the far post to head the ball back with the ball striking Jordi Alba first on the chest before clipping off his arm causing a big appeal from Valladolid which the referee Carlos Clos Gomez ignored.
There was not a lot between the teams in the first 15 minutes but as is often the case when a team plays high pressing Valladolid couldn’t keep up the rhythm and Barça began to take control with the constant fast movement of the ball. Alexis showed a lot of fight, good movement and link-up play, but unfortunately his luck in front of goal continues to be very disappointing. To be fair he was tightly marked by Rukavina who denied him space to finish after Messi’s assist, and then from Alves’s cross he just failed to get his head on the ball as he dived in.
It was then Alexis who sent a cross in that nobody could finish and we even saw Piqué pushing right up in an attempt to make the difference. The chances started to come more frequently. Messi combined with Alves on the right before sprinting into the middle to get on the end of the Brazilian’s cross but his header lacked power to surprise Dani. Then in the 35th minute Thiago was pulled back on the edge of the box and Messi curled the free kick against the post.
Barça’s insistance paid off just before half time. Messi made a run forward from deep before finding Xavi who knocked the ball back to Alexis, the ball kept moving at lightning speed as the ball came to Messi and then onto Alba making a typical surge forward on the left and his low cross was met by Xavi with an easy finish from six yards.
Valladolid began the second half trying the same pressing game but they found themselves chasing shadows. Barça’s neat passing was exemplified by Alves’s run into the box after exchanging passes with Xavi and Pedro twice, Alves was forced wide by the keeper coming out but he crossed for Pedro who sent a header that clipped the outside of the far post. Barça’s patient dance continued but always with the ambition for more goals as demonstrated by both Busquets and Piqué trying their luck on forays into enemy territory.
In the 58th minute a cock-up from the Valladolid defence gifted Alexis a run at goal but two defenders got back to prevent his advance, however, they only succeeded in setting up Messi with a chance that he took horribly on his right foot, pulling the ball well wide. The commentator on Gol TV began to drone on about how this just proved that Messi was human, but Messi begged to differ. Just thirty seconds later Busquets again won the ball in Valladolid’s half, sending the ball to Messi who quickly exchanged passes with Xavi before setting off on a diagonal run before shooting across Dani into the far corner from just inside the area.
The last half an hour just seemed to be a case of how many more would Barça score. Rukavina nearly scored an own goal, heading the ball past Dani from 30 yards but the Valladolid keeper managed to sprint back and save a yard out. Messi went on another slalom, assisted by Alexis’s clever decoy run, but his curler failed to curl enough, going a yard wide. Then after a splendid build-up with at least twenty passes, Alves was caught offside as we closed in on Dani’s goal
David Villa came on for Alexis and had one good run up the left though his cross was cut out by the defence, then after another good build-up Alves failed to finish from close in, strangely flicking the ball back towards Xavi as though he believed he was again offside. It didn’t seem to matter with the score at 0-2 but then in the 89th minute Bueno volleyed in a cross from the right and Javi Guerra got between Piqué and Mascherano to head for goal, Valdés made an excellent stop but Guerra was quickest to stab home the rebound.
There was suddenly the very big danger of dropping points and in injury time Barça were reduced to some time-wasting tactics. One such tactic was Piqué and Valdés delaying the taking of a free kick while another was to make a last minute substitution with Tello replacing Pedro. It might have been intended as a way of killing time but thirty seconds after coming on Tello took advantage of Sereno’s mistake, running through to beat Dani with a cool low finish.
It’s been a tough week for Barça but with Vilanova recovering well enough to leave hospital this afternoon, today’s three points will mean happy holidays at Can Barça, 16 points above Real Madrid after their defeat at Malaga. The team showed an excellent attitude today and we more than matched Valladolid’s high work-rate. All the players deserve credit but today I reserve a special mention for Sergio Busquets. Due to Vilanova’s absence, yesterday’s press conference was taken by Busquets and this evening he showed he is ready and willing to take more responsibility in the team. His performance was a master class for any aspiring defensive midfielder, showing good anticipation to rob the ball high up the pitch, excellent positioning and covering in defence, skill to weave away from opponents and impeccable distribution. He also showed his usual cool-head while never flinching from a tackle. In short, as they say in Catalan, seny, pit i collons.
Valladolid: Dani Hernandez; Rukavina, Sereno, Marc Valiente, Mikel Balenziaga; Luis Sastre (Baraja m81), Victor Perez; Alberto Bueno (Ruben Peña m65), Oscar, Omar; Manucho (Javi Guerra m75)
Barça: Valdés 6.5; Alves 7, Piqué 7.5, Mascherano 6.5, Alba 7; Xavi 7, Busquets 9, Thiago 6.5 (Iniesta m84, –); Pedro 6.5 (Tello m93, –), Messi 7.5, Alexis 6.5 (Villa m77, 6.5).
Goals: m43 Xavi 0-1, m59 Messi 0-2, m89 Javi Guerra 1-2, m93 Tello 1-3.
Yellow cards: m26 Bueno, m35 Sereno, m40 Thiago, m52 Sastre, m66 Oscar